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Thomas Mulcair, NDP deputy leader and candidate in the riding of Outremont, talks with a supporter during Canada's federal election day in Montreal, Monday, May 2, 2011. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)
Thomas Mulcair, NDP deputy leader and candidate in the riding of Outremont, talks with a supporter during Canada's federal election day in Montreal, Monday, May 2, 2011. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Jeffrey Simpson

Managing Tom Mulcair Add to ...

What happens when the lieutenant has more troops than the general? We might find out as the years unfold for the federal New Democratic Party.

What might be called the Jack and Tom show will be among the most fascinating of the next Parliament as the NDP moves into unaccustomed political territory, Official Opposition, with party leader Jack Layton co-existing with Quebec lieutenant Thomas Mulcair.

Jack Layton is unchallenged as leader, and rightly so. Mr. Mulcair, however, has barely concealed leadership aspirations for whenever Mr. Layton steps aside. Mr. Layton's popularity helped the NDP to win an astonishing 58 seats in Quebec, but Mr. Mulcair is the party's Quebec lieutenant. The day-to-day mobilizing, organizing and hand-holding of these new MPs will largely fall to him.

Already, it's obvious that work needs to be done to make sure Mr. Mulcair remains in step with the leader and the party.

His stupid rumination that perhaps more evidence is needed that Osama bin Laden is dead, casting doubt therefore on the word of President Barack Obama, illustrated some of the party's instinctive anti-Americanism. It also showed Mr. Mulcair freelancing, which is something easier to overlook in a fourth party than in the Official Opposition.

Similarly, Mr. Mulcair has driven the party into a very Quebec nationalistic position on language, whereby Quebec's Bill 101 would take precedence over the Official Languages Act for federal institutions in Quebec. This position, similar to the one taken by the Parti Québécois and Bloc Québécois, will undoubtedly please Quebec secessionists and strong nationalists, but it does not jibe with the NDP's stated policy of support for the Official Languages Act.

Now that the NDP is the Official Opposition, Canadians will see a great deal more of Mr. Mulcair, who had a long history in Quebec affairs before entering politics.

Interviews with those who know him well, including former provincial cabinet colleagues, turn up the same descriptive words: smart, driven, tough, combative, charming, headstrong, not always easy to work with, media savvy, short-tempered, sometimes foul-mouthed, often marches to his own drummer. Several former colleagues said he was among the most tenacious questioners they had ever seen in a legislature. Said one admiringly, "He's a fighter. He can be mean. He's tough. He goes for the kill."

Mr. Mulcair has a bit of a record of leaving positions, if not in a huff, then at least following disagreements. For example, he left the English-rights lobby group, Alliance Quebec, in the 1980s over some sort of disagreement. More spectacularly, he bolted the Quebec Liberal government of Jean Charest, where he had been minister of the environment.

He was sharply in disagreement with a development project at Mount Orford backed by the Premier, disliked several other proposed projects, discovered that he was being demoted to the ministry of government services, and packed his bags. Said a friend, "He's not an easy person to manage."

Three persons who knew Mr. Mulcair said they were surprised he joined the NDP. They all thought that upon departing the provincial Liberals he would head intellectually to the Conservatives.

Instead he won election to the Commons as a New Democrat in the traditional Liberal riding of Outremont. He defended it impressively in the recent election against the former Liberal justice minister Martin Cauchon.

Now, unexpectedly, he and 57 other Quebec New Democrats have arrived in Ottawa, all neophytes except for him. It will obviously take time for them to get to know their jobs, and for the party brass to get to know them.

Quebec MPs represent more than half the NDP national caucus. Although Mr. Layton is the leader, Mr. Mulcair, as deputy leader and Quebec lieutenant, will obviously have considerable sway over this group of Quebec MPs.

How Mr. Mulcair behaves, what he says and how he says it, which direction he urges on the Quebec wing and the national caucus, and how he gets along with Mr. Layton and his circle of advisers will be much more highly scrutinized than when the NDP sat as the fourth party in the Commons. It will also be highly consequential for the NDP in Quebec and as a national party, since some day Mr. Mulcair wants to be where Jack Layton is today.

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